What are Squares? 

Isn’t it funny that squares are called squares but aren’t always square? Squares or plazas are important elements of city design with different shapes and sizes. It is the way of designing a good setting for public and commercial buildings in cities. A square or plaza is both an area framed by buildings and an area designed to exhibit its buildings to the greatest advantage (Moughtin, 2003).

Squares act as a center point for social and cultural life in the city. The unique relationship between the open area of the square, the surrounding buildings and the sky above creates a genuine emotional experience comparable to the impact of any other work of art (Donald, Alan and Robert, 2003).

Great civic compositions such as St. Mark’s Square in Venice and St. Peter’s Square in Rome are unique in the relationship between space, the surrounding buildings and the dome of the sky (Moughtin, 2003).

Saint Mark Square (Venice-Italy) Courtesy of http://media.gttwl.com

Saint Mark Square (Venice-Italy)
Courtesy of http://media.gttwl.com

Saint Peter Square (Rome-Italy) Courtesy of https://upload.wikimedia.org

Saint Peter Square (Rome-Italy)
Courtesy of https://upload.wikimedia.org

History and Background of Squares

In the distribution of public places, issues of functions and traffic are in consideration. When we go back to the ancient Greek world, the earliest agora of post-Persian Miletus was built facing the bay. Historically, the town square was both a civic center and a market place, for example, the Greek agora. In this way, the city can exploit its waterfront’s commercial potential and enjoy a separate center for its political life elsewhere in the fabric of the city.

Greek agora Courtesy of http://s.newsweek.com

Greek agora
Courtesy of http://s.newsweek.com

Also, we should take note that early Anatolian towns, Troy among them, traditionally had two plazas, in front of the palace. Inevitably a gate plaza, at least when it was outside the gate, included market activities. The palace square has almost a universal currency. Even in imperial China, where cities were not endowed with squares and great temple precincts had no formal open spaces, the palace compound was entered through an urban forecourt that terminated the ceremonial north-south axis. Palace squares distinguished the official residents of the ruler. Lastly, squares were developed as a result of the traffic pressures of crossroads and were incorporated into a new town plan as crossroads features (Kostof, 1999).

Ancient Palace Square in China Courtesy of http://images.china.cn

Ancient Palace Square in China
Courtesy of http://images.china.cn

Functions of the Square

Activity in a square is important for its vitality and also for its visual attraction. The physical and psychological function of the square does not depend on size or scale. However, squares create a gathering place for people and provide mutual contact. Also, squares provide users with a shelter against the haphazard traffic and freeing them from the tension of rushing through the web of the streets (Donald, Alan and Rober, 2003).

Courthouse Square (Portland-United States) Courtesy of http://clarksvillenow.sagacom

Courthouse Square (Portland-United States)
Courtesy of http://clarksvillenow.sagacom

The types of spaces needed in a city are: the settings for a civic building, the principle meeting places, places for great ceremonial occasions, spaces for entertainment around buildings such as theaters, cinemas and cafes. Also, the city needs spaces for shopping, like pedestrian shopping streets, arcades and markets, spaces around which offices are grouped, spaces of semi-public nature around which residential accommodation is arranged and finally, the spaces associated with urban traffic junctions. Squares are the natural locale for community activities and representation (Moughtin, 2003).

Sanata Ana Square (Madrid-Spain) Courtesy of http://mividaen.sampere.com

Sanata Ana Square (Madrid-Spain)
Courtesy of http://mividaen.sampere.com

The needs and demands of the past may have been fewer and less complex than today, but they were as basic for the determination of the final shape as they are now. Thus, the analysis of typical examples of the past need not remain a mere historical discussion, but should also stimulate some thoughts for town planning and urban design of today. While technical and socioeconomic conditions have changed completely, this should not deter us from applying lessons from the past to conditions and needs of the present. This does not mean that the most impressive and convincing achievements of earlier centuries should simply be copied.

Ghirardelli Square (San Francisco-United States) Courtesy of http://news.theregistrysf.com

Ghirardelli Square (San Francisco-United States)
Courtesy of http://news.theregistrysf.com

In considering the center (square), two architectural theorists are particularly important: Lynch and Alexander. In the study of the perception of urban structure, “The image of the city”, Lynch found that the node is to be one of the elements by which a city is recognized and understood. In short, the node is an important element which gives the city a strong image. As he says: “the nodes are …… the conceptual anchor points in our cities”. In the mean time, Alexander makes much the same point: “every whole must be a “center” in itself and must also produce a system of centers around it” (Moughtin, 2003).

Piazza Del Campo (Siena, Italy)

For anyone fortunate enough to ever visit Siena, this square inevitably makes the most vivid memory. Piazza del Campo defines the city. It is the main public square and it is known to be one of the most beautiful squares in Medieval Europe. It is situated between the Siena Town Hall and Palazzo Sansedoni. This gently sloping square is a perfect place to stretch your legs and enjoy Siena’s architecture. Piazza del Campo is known for the peculiarity of its shape, a descending half-moon. Twice a year, the famous Palio of Siena takes place (Ancos, 2014).

Plan of Piazza del Campo (Siena-Italy) Courtesy of http://www.greatbuildings.com

Plan of Piazza del Campo (Siena-Italy)
Courtesy of http://www.greatbuildings.com

Annual Palio in Piazza del Campo (Siena-Italy) Courtesy of http://www.consiglidigusto.it

Annual Palio in Piazza del Campo (Siena-Italy)
Courtesy of http://www.consiglidigusto.it

It may be the foremost example of how a square’s influence can extend, like the tentacles of the octopus, through the surrounding streets. In addition, the layout where one can see everything in the square from any corner, makes it a fantastic place to watch people.

It is a hub for activity and social exchange. It contains cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating areas around three edges and other retail spaces. The attracted users and tourists tend to stand by the bollards, window-shop along the edges, sit at the cafes and promenade between the bollards and the seating areas. People stand or sit in the center of the piazza during major events (Monro, 2013).

People gathering in Piazza del Campo (Siena-Italy) Courtesy of Luca Onniboni

People gathering in Piazza del Campo (Siena-Italy)
Courtesy of Luca Onniboni

A tour of the piazza will bring you to the famous palazzi signorili, the beautiful palazzos that line it and were once a home to the Nobel residents of the city. The Fontana Gaia is another highlight of the piazza. Today, the beautiful fountain functions as a center of attraction for tourists who are visiting the city (Ancos, 2014).

Squares as Open-Ended Activities

So, it can be concluded that squares are focal points in urban design and are an important piece of art in the fabric of any community. They represent a fraction of the total open space of a city. In addition, squares serve as the public realm and environment for the surrounding buildings. They are places where people can meet and socialize. Sometimes squares already exist, however, it can be shaped according to its users and occupants of space. They tend to shape its image, boundaries and so on. This means that, users are responsible for the design of their public squares which create a sense of place and flexibility, add symbolic meanings and provide open-ended activities.

Written by: Riham Nady

 References

– Ancos. (September 2014). “Historic Center of Siena”. Life in Italy. Official website  http://www.lifeinitaly.com/tourism/tuscany/siena-unesco

– Donald, Watson, Alan, Plattus and Robert, Shibely. (2003). “Time Saver: Standards for Urban Design”. Architectural Press. Oxford.

– “Piazza Del Campo in Siena”. Italy. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

– Kostof, Spiro. (1999). “The City Assembled: The Elements of Urban Form through History”. Thames and Hudson, Boston

– Monro, Peter. (June 2013). “Attractive gathering spaces are not surprised”. http://www.designforwalking.com/attractive-gathering-spaces-are-not-surprized

– Moughtin, Cliff. (2003). “Urban Design: Street and Square. Architectural Press. Oxford.

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